Psychoanalysis through a Psychosocial Lens

by Stephen Frosh

Forty years ago, I wrote and published a short paper—one of my very first—in the Bulletin of the British Psychological Society (now known as The Psychologist). It was called “Teaching Freud to Psychology Students” and was all of two pages long. I don’t remember fully what it said (I’m not even sure if I still have a copy), but I do recall that some of my academic colleagues were irritated by what they took to be my complaint that there was insufficient attention paid to psychoanalysis in the psychology curriculum.

They might have been right to be annoyed; after all, I had already been teaching Freud to my psychology students, and I’ve continued to teach psychoanalysis to students in psychology and other fields ever since. My complaint that there was no space to teach something I was already teaching was slightly disingenuous on my part, and I probably made some outrageous claims about psychoanalysis as a discipline that could speak to students’ concerns much more powerfully than the arid discourses of psychology, such as behaviourism, statistics, cognitive psychology, biological psychology, and so on. Attacking my colleagues for what they were teaching was not a great way to endear myself to them, let alone advance my argument that psychoanalysis might be a richer and more ethical approach to understanding ourselves and the questions we have about our relation to others.

Anyway, forty years later, it occurs to me that much of my academic career has been devoted to working out what psychoanalysis might have to say to students who want their studies to challenge them and also speak directly to their experience of the world. This has fuelled my own allegiance to the development of “Psychosocial Studies,” by which I mean an approach to understanding the human subject as a kind of meeting-point for “external” (or social) and “internal” (or subjective) forces—though of course this internal/external distinction is an oversimplification.

Psychosocial Studies is a transdisciplinary approach that aims to disrupt the tendency in more traditional social-science disciplines to separate the social from the personal and to make claims for “objective” knowledge over and against the “subjective” forms of knowledge cultivated in the humanities. Psychoanalysis becomes relevant here because it insists that processing all knowledge through subjective experience is the only legitimate way to be “objective”—that is, as both Freud and Lacan insisted, psychoanalytic understanding has to be experienced and not just learnt from the outside or, indeed, from books.

But exactly what sort of knowledge does psychoanalysis have to offer university students? Psychoanalysis is certainly not free, even today, from various colonialist, racist, and sexist tendencies. Indeed, historically, it has often been more conservative than progressive, and it remains burdened by various assumptions about gender, sexual identities, and cultural difference that can be made to collude with forces of oppression. In places such as Nazi Germany or the Brazil and Argentina of the late twentieth-century dictatorships, this resulted in a considerable degree of conforming with authoritarian rule that undermines the expectation that psychoanalysis might always be socially progressive. It is also, in its professional guise, largely privatised and very expensive, accessible mainly to wealthy, white patrons, even though there is also a long history of free and low-cost clinics offering psychodynamic treatment to disadvantaged populations. Moreover, psychoanalytic training institutes have often operated as closed shops, recruiting from a narrow range of candidates and sustaining themselves through exclusionary practices that encourage conformity. None of this necessarily promotes a sense of psychoanalysis as a living discipline that can speak to the searching concerns of students who want to find critical leverage on the damage being done by the unequal societies in which they live, from racist policing to sexist legislation to global warming, neo-colonialist violence, and war.

Yet psychoanalysis can offer students critical insights into psychosocial issues and new and rich perspectives on ethics as such. This can be seen especially clearly in the enduring radical tradition within psychoanalysis—a tradition that is often much more familiar to cultural and social critics than to psychoanalysts themselves. In my own work, I have linked this tradition with certain currents in Jewish thought—just one example of an interdisciplinary approach that can help students see how psychoanalysis is best understood as a mode of ethical relationality, in which what matters most is the approach to the Other. This includes encounters with those who might be one’s “neighbours”—that is, those with whom (to allude to Judith Butler’s work on Hannah Arendt) one shares a certain world.

What I try to show my students at Birkbeck, University of London, is that psychoanalysis promotes an openness to otherness by helping us to map the complexity of psychic life, including the ways in which it’s both conditioned and disrupted by affective, often conflictual, engagements with those to whom and for whom we are responsible. I try to show them how the pursuit of clarity and rationality is always conditioned by the murk and mystery of our relations with others and by our own largely unconscious experience.

Many students find it difficult at first to accept the concept of the unconscious—that our relationships with ourselves and with others are mediated by impulses, wishes, and desires of which we’re not consciously aware or that seem to come from “somewhere else,” somewhere that is “not-me” yet deeply inscribed in my psyche. Many others are relieved and excited to recognise their own emotionally complex experiences in the “academic” literature. I also try to help them understand that—whatever “constitutional” elements there might be to the unconscious, such as those posited by classical drive theory—our relational or intersubjective encounters, and the social and linguistic structures that shape them, actually constitute our supposedly “internal” sense of reality. Through our readings and discussions, students see that this model of self-other relations is broadly accepted across a wide range of contemporary psychoanalytic schools, including object-relational and interpersonal/relational schools, as well as in various Lacanian reformulations of drive theory, seduction theory, and gender theory.

Above all, what I hope my students will come away with is an understanding of the ways in which otherness has found a primary place in contemporary psychoanalytic thought and practice and that they can use their psychoanalytic education to help them link the immediacy and delicacy of their sense of “inner” selfhood with the aspects of social and political life they see around them. Against the caricatured view of psychoanalysis as “self-absorbed,” this approach to Psychosocial Studies reveals how closely the ethics of psychoanalytic treatment—that every individual subject is worthy of attention and care—is bound up with social critique.

5 Replies to “Psychoanalysis through a Psychosocial Lens”

  1. Stephen, I appreciate this thoughtful reconsideration. I am deeply curious what the contemporary undergrad Psychoanalytic Studies minor student makes of the points you offer.

    I fear that there are fewer and fewer voice available to help bridge the gap between the early theoretical and practice considerations which preoccupied analysts and our current state of affairs wherein psychoanalysiss has become “digested” internationally with the result of broadened applicability: Your Psychosocial Studies program appears to stand as an example.

    As the Director of a college counseling center for 27 years prior to retirement, my staff and I were witness to the need for a formulation of what “treatment” consists of during that maturational period. Psychoanalytic theory offered a foundation to keep a student viable, in many cases alive, as they learned how their mind works and formulated a personal narrative that could be sustaining.

    Thank you for taking the time to offer Penn’s youthful scholars a window into a world of precious human wonder.

    David Ramirez, PhD, ABPP
    former President APA Division of Psychoanalysys (39)
    retired director, Swarthmore College CAPS

  2. Thanks, David, for this comment! I just want to point out to readers that Professor Frosh teaches, not at Penn (alas!), but at Birbeck, University of London, where he directs the MA Programme in Psychosocial Studies. Like David Ramirez, I’d be very interested to hear from undergraduates and their teachers at any and all schools where psychoanalysis is an important part of the curriculum!

  3. I like Prof. Frosh’s article. I don’t understand or agree with the statement regarding Argentine psychoanalysts related to the authoritarian regime that ruled the country 1976-1983. Born in Argentina and being there a professor in the Humanities, I left the country-as most intellectuals, actors, writers, and especially psychoanalysts did. The reason was opposition to the military rule and/or fear of persecution, ‘disappearance’ and death.

    1. Dear Jorgelina Corbatta,

      Thanks for this. What you write is partially true. As Nancy Hollander has documented, it was certainly the case that many psychoanalysts fled (e.g. Marie Langer) and some resisted. However, the official institutions of psychoanalysis conformed with the junta (which was the reason for Langer’s breakaway group). There’s quite a lot of material about this, but here is a brief extract from Mariano Plotkin’s chapter in Histories of Psychoanalysis Under Conditions of Restricted Political Freedom:

      ‘If anything happened to the Argentine “psychoanalytic culture” during those years it was its consolidation. Although it has been said many times that psychologists and psychoanalysts were singled out for repression by the military, this claim cannot be confirmed. As happened elsewhere, members of the psy professions who were persecuted were not targeted because of their profession but — as it happened with members of other professions — , as a result of their real or alleged leftist sympathies or their opposition to the regime. Although some psychoanalysts were persecuted for different reasons, psychoanalysis was tolerated and even encouraged by the authorities. Neither the official APA nor the Asociación Psicoanalítica de Buenos Aires (APdeBA), the other IPA-affiliated psychoanalytic organization that was created in 1976, suffered repression. On the other hand, both IPA-affiliated organizations refused to denounce the military dictatorship. The APA even received a grant from the Ministry of Public Health in May 1976 (2 months after the coup, when repression was at its height) to cover the costs of organizing a Latin American psychoanalytic conference. Th e institution continued to grow and by 1979 it had become the fourth largest psychoanalytic institution in the world. APA and ApdeBA analysts continued to travel freely throughout the country to lecture and offer training courses. In 1980, the APA president, a familiar figure in the media, could boast the important place that the APA (and psychoanalysis) occupied in the nation’s cultural life, exercising its influence far beyond the analytic community. Moreover, in those years, an increasingly strong community of followers of Jacques Lacan consolidated, becoming hegemonic in the following decade.’

      1. Dear Stephen Frosh,
        It took me sometime to put my ideas and, mainly, my emotions together in order to answer your message. As the Holocaust victims know well we, who suffered the genocide in Argentina during the military rule 1976-1983, can’t approach to the topic lightly.
        Let’s get personal. I was an academic at the Universidad Nacional del Sur (Bahia Blanca) when the military took power, terminated all the careers in the humanities (literature, psychology, sociology, even economics) with the excuse of restructuring them, leaving us unemployed and under the risk of ulterior persecution for ‘thinking’; many colleagues and students disappeared (cf. “la noche de los lápices”, a monument commemorating high-school students disappeared and killed, also turned into a film). A minor problem, besides disappearance and death, was that censorship easily turned into self-censorship-a very uncomfortable place to be if you were a professor, creative person or free thinkers.
        In January 1977, my husband and I -together with our two sons (4 and 6 years old) went to Colombia where I taught at Universidad de Antioquia (Medellín) for 8 years before moving to the US in 1987 as a Visiting Professor at Indiana U. (Blommington), and later to Wayne State University where I retired as an Emerita Professor in 2017.
        During many years the trauma of exile and politics accompanied me. As a result my second book on literary/film criticism was “Narrativas de la Guerra Sucia en Argentina” (Narratives of the Dirty War in Argentina), where I tried to understand what happened in my country through literature and film. Initially I have planned to analyze six authors, three who stayed in Argentina during the Dirty War, and three who left. I ended with three authors who left the country (Valenzuela, Saer, Puig) and only one who stayed. That personal/professional conflict reflected, in some way, the different narratives that circulated inside /outside Argentina during, and after the military rule. Unless to say that not only writers, philosophers, sociologists, actors, left the country ‘in masse’ but also, and especially psychoanalysts because-as Patricia Gherovici says,
        “Not just in Argentina, but in the rest of the Americas, psychoanalysis had a very different development that it did in the United States. It was considered eminently political. Psychoanalysts were often radicalized and the psychoanalytic discourse as a whole was embraced by left-wing intellectuals as a tool for social transformation” (6, “The Argentinean Exception Proves the Rule).
        Going now to a vast and informed research on the topic, Marco Ramos, “Psychiatry, authoritarianism, an revolution: the politics of mental illness during military dictatorships in Argentina, 1966-1983” (2013) gives an excellent presentation of the complexity of the relationship between psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, psychologists, mental health institutions and military discourse during those years. More personal, Eduardo Pavlovsky’s, Guillermo O’Donnell’s, Carpintero’s and Vainer’s, Silvia Berman’s, Mauricio Goldenberg’s, German Leopoldo García’s texts. Special mention, of course, for Leon and Rebecca Grinberg, exiled in Spain, and authors of Psychoanalysis of Migration and Exile, on my favorite as a healing tool and also an instructional one. Personally I don’t have a lot of respect for Mariano Plotkin’s work, a very ‘astute’ (as one reviewer put it) author whose main interest is to present a study of Argentine psychoanalysis ‘for export’ (especially for US audience).

        Respectfully yours,

        Jorgelina Corbatta

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